Sam Ballard finds out how one industry veteran is thriving on the high street
We’ve all heard scare stories about the imminent death of independent book shops and record stores, unwilling victims of the rapacious internet. Some people have also added high-street travel agencies to this list – but according to Miles Morgan, owner of Miles Morgan Travel, there is very little truth in this assertion – at least as far as travel agencies is concerned.
The received wisdom is that these shops have been squeezed, consolidated and left facing a David versus Goliath battle for bucket-and-spade deals with the giant online agents (OTAs). But this is a gross oversimplification.
To prove his point, Miles Morgan happens to own one of the fastest growing independent agencies in the country.
“Last January was our biggest selling month, again,” Morgan explains. “We beat our record by a mile, but there was no sale in our shops, there was no red in our windows. Nothing.”
Morgan’s career to date is an interesting one. After starting work at Bakers Dolphin, a chain of independent agencies based in the southwest, he moved over to Thomson after the travel giant bought up its smaller rival. A corporate career followed, with Morgan eventually working his way up to sales and marketing director for TUI – running the Lunn Poly brand and overseeing its rebranding to Thomson in the early 2000s. He left TUI and founded Miles Morgan Travel in 2006. The company now has a network of 15 shops dotted around the picturesque towns of southwest England and south Wales.
“We fly against conventional wisdom,” Morgan says. “We started in 2006, just when the internet was started to ratchet up – people thought I was mad because ‘retail was dead’ and ‘the death of the high street’ etc – but we have had record sales every single year for 11 years.
“What’s the magic formula? It’s to have brilliant people at the sharp end. My focus every year is to do a check of the crew. Who have I got in the company compared to 12 months ago. Are we better? Every year the quality improves. We really do have sensational people.”
This is a point that Morgan never fails to emphasise: local travel agencies are a people business. Following this philosophy creates agencies that become hubs of the community – as important as all of the other mainstays you find on the nation’s high streets.
“If you go into my shop in Ross-on-Wye it is always full. But, I would say that the majority of people in there are not booking a holiday. It’s a community hub. Last time I was there a man came in, went upstairs and helped himself to a coffee. He was from the flower stall in the market. Nina, the manager, has created that kind of environment. Now, no-one in the area would dream of booking a holiday anywhere but in her shop.”
Morgan likens his managers to small business owners, a philosophy of entrepreneurship that produces visibly different results to his much bigger competitors. At his agencies, staff turnover is lower, customer relationships are stronger and more holidays are booked.
“The loyalty in our business isn’t to Miles Morgan Travel – it’s to Sue, or Jane. That’s where it sits. The company is the overarching thing but fundamentally it is all about the people at the coalface. It always has been and it always will be.
“I no longer see Thomas Cook or TUI as competitors. They mainly sell their own stuff. If I go into a town and there’s a Cooks and a TUI, then that’s the best town I could go into because they don’t do what I do. We’re still a travel agent.”
“We have had record sales every single year for 11 years. What’s the magic formula? It’s to have brilliant people at the sharp end”
The success of Miles Morgan Travel rests on a simple business plan that Morgan says has remained unchanged since day one: to target retired and affluent clients and have shops in towns that match that demographic. With those customers in mind, Morgan has tailored a list of 55-60 preferred partners: operators who fit the mould. A smaller list means that his agents know the product, and both the sales reps and Morgan himself know that the level of service the operators provide will match his company’s standards. Operators have been dropped in the past for not coming up to scratch.
“We have a directional sales policy,” Morgan adds. “Some holiday companies struggle with us because they don’t understand what we’re about. We have a preferred list for cruise, long-haul and short-haul that we sell into and we work with those suppliers very closely. I can work with other companies, but I might only do a handful of bookings with them. It’s a waste of our time, but also we wouldn’t be important to that supplier. You can’t be everything to everyone. Decide your demographic and go for it.”
It’s a plan that appears to be working. Morgan recently hired his first homeworker (a former Thomas Cook best-seller) and has more store openings on the cards.
“Are we going to expand? The answer is yes,” he adds. “But, are we going to expand hugely? No. I left Thomson because I was too far away from the coalface and from talking about holidays. It was very, very impersonal. Whatever people say about me, I am very personal. I know our people. I know their husbands, girlfriends, wives – and they know me. They trust me, I trust them and it works.”
Morgan is also quick to say that it is not just Miles Morgan Travel that is succeeding, either. “The guys I speak to, who have businesses like mine, are all thriving,” he says. “Loads of high-street agents are opening shops – you look at the decline of retail, Toys R Us, Carpetright, etc – and people think we’re mad. But, the decline of the high-street travel agent hasn’t really happened.
“Those who succeed know their market well and know their town well. You have to set your stall out and relentlessly go for it.”
It would appear that the death of the high-street travel agent may have been greatly exaggerated.